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Composer Caroline Shaw: From Pulitzer Prize to Kanye West to the Ojai Music Fest

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw is one of the featured composers at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw is one of the featured composers at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Dashon Burton
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw is one of the featured composers at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
The Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth is performing works by Caroline Shaw at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Bonica Ayala
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw is one of the featured composers at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Kaija Saariaho is a featured composer at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Priska Ketterer

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The 70th annual Ojai Music Festival takes place from June 9-12. This year’s music director is Peter Sellars, the enigmatic stage director who’s been a longtime champion of new music and avant-garde opera. He’s programmed music by 11 different composers for the festival — and 10 of them happen to be women.

One of those composers is Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. Shaw has been in a bit of a whirlwind since she won the prize. “I have a lot more unanswered email,” she says, laughing. “I apologize to anyone who’s ever sent me a message.”

Shaw, who’s based in New York City, never dreamt she would win — and become the youngest person, 30 at the time, ever to do so. But the judges heard something fresh and intriguing in her piece, “Partita for 8 Voices.”

Shaw is a member of the Grammy-winning group, Roomful of Teeth, which experiments with different vocal techniques from around the world. The music Shaw writes often blends spoken text with harmony and rhythm in a way that’s somehow both alien and familiar, so it’s not unusual that she would be invited to the Ojai Music Festival this year, which often showcases the experimental and avant-garde.

“I think avant-garde can probably be defined in many different ways,” Shaw says. “So I’m excited to be a part of this whole lineup. I think all of the pieces speak to each other in slightly different ways.”

The festival will feature “Partita” and two other pieces by Shaw. One is “By and By” — her unique take on old bluegrass and gospel songs. The piece, for singer and string quartet, finds its roots in her childhood years in North Carolina.

“I love the words to these songs,” she says, “but I sometimes get frustrated when they seem to be treated so ... even like commercial country music ... they’re very upbeat. And I kind of wanted to liquefy things and slow it down, and find a different kind of way of hearing the words to the songs.”

The last piece of Shaw's is a brand new commission for the festival called, “This might also be a form of dreaming.” She was still tinkering with the piece a few days before its premiere. It’s based on a text by the American poet Claudia Rankine, and will be performed by Roomful of Teeth and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Shaw says the piece bears an influence from some of the other artists featured in the festival, including Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. But it also has traces of one of her new collaborators — a young man named Kanye West.

“He came to a concert that Roomful of Teeth was a part of at the Disney Hall in May,” Shaw recalls. “And at intermission he came back and just wanted to say hello, and met the group, and was trying to find me. We exchanged numbers and just started talking about a couple of things that summer. And then it went from there.”

Shaw first contributed to the remix of West's “Say You Will,” then recently participated on three tracks from his latest album, “The Life of Pablo.” Asked what it was like for this classically-trained musician, who practically grew up with a violin in her hands and has a PhD in composition from Yale, to work with the bragadocious king of hip-hop, Shaw ponders.

“Uh... wild, exhausting, creative, inspiring, bizarre — and very cool,” she says. “I learned a lot.”

Peter Sellars has said that the high percentage of women composers represented in this year’s Ojai Music Festival is merely a coincidence, and the festival isn’t making a big deal out of it in its promotions. But it is a big deal. Most modern concert programs would be considered diverse to have just one of their featured composers be a woman.

Saariaho is making her Ojai debut. While listening to a rehearsal of “Sombre,” one of several of her works featured here, she admits she feels torn about any festival focusing on women composers.

“Of course it’s important that women composers are programmed,” she says, “but I hope they are not programmed because they are women. I always hope that my music is programmed because of my music, and not because of my gender.”

Still, Saariaho is happy the festival will throw a spotlight on the music of talented and underrepresented composers, and on rising stars such as Caroline Shaw. We’ll certainly be hearing a lot more of Shaw’s music in the coming years. Thanks in large part to the attention the Pulitzer brought, she’s now working on several commissions.

“But secretly I’d really like to work on a more studio album kind of project,” Shaw says. “It’s TBD —  something that I feel like is not trying to be anything other than what I want.”

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